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Terry Woster

WOSTER: Alice Kundert one of SD politics' brightest stars

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The last handwritten note I received from Alice Kundert came a few days after I'd written about visiting her in her Mound City home and finding her still lively, if aging.

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She took exception to the aging part. It may be so, she said, but did I have to tell the whole world? Beyond that, she thanked me for taking the time to stop and visit. It wasn't every day that someone from Pierre showed up at her Campbell County doorstep and wanted nothing more than 30 minutes of reminiscing about the events and characters that made up the South Dakota political scene for the last half of the 20th century.

Well, my goodness. She didn't have to thank me. I had the time of my life that afternoon. Cookies and grape drink and a long, leisurely conversation with one of South Dakota's true one-of-a-kinds? It doesn't get much better than that.

Alice died earlier this week. I'd tell you how old she was, according to the obituaries, but she kind of cured me of mentioning her age. She was a force in South Dakota politics when I started covering state government and the Legislature, and she remained a presence throughout nearly my entire newspapering career of more than 40 years. I came to Pierre in 1969. She was state auditor then, serving her first year. She served until 1978 and then served two four-year terms as secretary of state before running unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for governor.

The candidate who beat her in that 1986 primary, the late Gov. George Mickelson, gave South Dakota a big birthday present when he appointed Alice as sort of a special ambassador to the state Centennial celebration in 1989. I can't recall the title of the position, but it consisted mostly of traveling the state talking about South Dakota's history and first century of statehood. She was passionate on the subject, and she could captivate an audience of school children as well as senior citizens (not to mention age at all).

Jim Wilson, my first boss with The Associated Press in 1969, introduced me to Alice just a couple of days after I started work in the Capitol bureau.

"This is one person who knows everything you'll ever want to know about where the money goes,'' Jim said. "And she'll tell you the truth.'' In the years I covered the Capitol, I never found reason to question Jim's initial assessment.

I grew accustomed to picking up the phone to hear a gruff, "Woster? Kundert here. I have those vouchers you were asking about. Stop down. We'll talk.'' I'd stop down, and we'd talk -- at first about the material I'd requested, but then about the people and places that made South Dakota what it is. I've always been fascinated by the personalities of the people who make news in our state, and Alice was equally fascinated with them -- and openly pleased to find someone willing to talk and listen.

As I began writing personal columns for the newspaper, Alice began, with handwritten notes, to offer her opinions and impressions of the things I described. She didn't mind telling me when she thought I'd made a mistake in fact or had wrongly interpreted a moment in South Dakota's history. She was equally quick to pen a short note when she liked a column or story.

I recall a column about growing up in the country back before the rural electric cooperatives brought dependable power to the plains and made it possible for every farm to have its own yard light. In those times, night was truly dark; nothing but the hint of shadows when a kid looked across the farm yard toward the barn or the shelter belt.

When an electrical storm passed through, the lightning bolts were so intense in the darkness that the images stayed behind your eyelids for long moments. Alice liked that column very much.

We talked of dark, stormy nights on the farm many times during the years Alice lived. She mentioned the topic during that last visit, over the cookies and the grape drink. She mentioned it again in her handwritten follow-up note.

I didn't keep the notes. I kept the memories.

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